GVIFD trustee elections

Wednesday, May 1 2019

On April 24, roughly 300 Gabriolans gathered at the fire hall to attend the Gabriola Volunteer Fire Department Annual General Meeting and to elect two fire board trustees. In 2018, only 17 people from the community turned out, and the increase in attendance this year was remarkable. Unfortunately, it was also the source of several problems that rendered the election and its results extremely questionable. 

To begin with, there was no mechanism to ascertain whether voters were indeed property owners on Gabriola. While property owners were asked to self-register at the door, there was no method of verifying their claim. Ballots were not distributed at this time, but much later during their meeting, when they were handed out to anyone who wanted one. Anyone, property owner or not, could have taken a ballot and voted. A system must be in place to verify that those who vote are property owners, and upon that verification a ballot should be handed to them.

Secondly, I can’t help but wonder whether a better system could be in place to nominate trustees before an election. Individuals interested in running as a trustee were simply nominated from the floor just minutes before the election, and quickly asked to share a few words about themselves before voting began. Why not create a deadline for nominations in advance of the AGM and give candidates a chance to answer a few questions in the Sounder like we do for all local elections? This would give voters a chance to get to know candidates and allow for real ballots to be prepared in advance—thus avoiding voters scribbling names on paper scraps. 

Thirdly, the process of turning in ballots was extremely chaotic, with people unsure where to turn them in, and when. The boxes holding the ballots should be in a clear place and should not roam around a room like a collection box. I was participating in the counting of ballots and I witnessed ballots being returned to the back room where the counting of ballots had already begun and after polls had closed. These late ballots were accepted.

Fourthly, there should be clear regulations in place regarding who is allowed to count ballots and how they should be counted and re-counted. Only those with an understanding of the process should be allowed to take part in counting ballots (under supervision of someone trained in such processes), and everything should be clear, reliable and transparent so that it may be open to audits if necessary. It was unclear who was the official presiding officer, and most certainly he/she was not always present during the counting of ballots.

Fifthly, the way results were announced - with only the names of the two elected candidates shared with the public - was nonsensical and completely unjustifiable. In any democratic election, voters have the right to be given information about the voting outcome, including information about how many votes each candidate received. The sharing - or more like, lack of sharing - of results smacked of the kind of secrecy sadly typical of a fourth world country.  

While it is understandable that a large turnout might have caused some organizational challenges, clear bylaws and clear processes need to be in place before any election - processes that are driven by fairness, reliability and transparency in the name of democracy - to make elections fair. And fair elections will keep community members engaged and solidify their trust in institutions. 

It might seem too onerous to generate a fair, transparent and well-organized election process, but the reality is that no work needs to be done from scratch. The BC Ministry of Local Governments has already developed procedures for local improvement district elections and following such recommendations would solve most of the problems identified in this letter. 

While I have no doubt whatsoever that Gabriolans trust, and are truly proud of their volunteer fire fighters, it is necessary that future trustee elections be effective, transparent and ultimately democratic. The benefit of doing so will ensure trust in the governance of our fire department. The cost of not doing so will be more AGMs attended by less than 20 people. 

~ April Vannini